Letters from an American, Newsletter
History Professor Heather Cox Richardson at Morrissey College of Arts and Sciences, Boston College chronicles today’s political landscape. Because it is difficult to understand today’s politics without an outline of America’s Constitution, and laws, and the economy, and social customs; the professor’s newsletter explores what it means, and what it has meant, to be an American.
Professor Richardson follows in the same manner as did Hector St. John de Crevecoeur (Letters from an American) in recording the daily events of our nation during the Revolution.
History doesn’t repeat itself, but it sure rhymes.
Three days (January 23rd) into the Biden administration and lots of commenters are noting the return of calm in the media, and the return of a sense of stability in the government. People are sleeping so much better that the word “slept” trended on Twitter the day after the inauguration.
President Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris appear to be eager to reestablish expertise as the foundation for public service. Biden is appointing what the Washington Post calls “technocrats” and what others have called “nerds” to public service. The former president tried to “burrow” his loyalists into office, politicizing positions that were supposed to be nonpartisan. Biden asked for the resignations of those political appointees and, when they refused to resign, fired them.
While some right-wing Republicans have howled that Biden’s firing of burrowing Trump loyalists betrays his promise of “unity,” in fact the new administration’s quick restoration of a qualified, nonpartisan bureaucracy is an attempt to stabilize our democracy.
Democracy depends on a nonpartisan group of functionaries who are loyal not to a single strongman but to the state itself. Loyalty to the country, rather than to a single leader, means those bureaucrats follow the law and have an interest in protecting the government. It is the weight of that loyalty that managed to stop Trump from becoming a dictator—he was thwarted by what he called the “Deep State,” people who were loyal not to him but to America and our laws. That loyalty was bipartisan. For all that Trump railed that anyone who stood up to him was a Democrat, in fact many—Special Counsel Robert Mueller and Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, for example—are Republicans.
Authoritarian figures expect loyalty to themselves alone, rather than to a nonpartisan government. To get that loyalty, they turn to underlings who are loyal because they are not qualified or talented enough to rise to power in a nonpartisan system. They are loyal to their boss because they could not make it in a true meritocracy, and at some level they know that (even if they insist they are disliked for their politics).
In the previous administration, the president tried to purge the government of career officials, complaining they were not loyal enough to him. In their place, he installed people like acting Secretary of Homeland Security Chad Wolf, who had been a lobbyist before his meteoric elevation to a Cabinet-level position and whose appointment a court ruled illegal. Wolf was never confirmed in his position by the Senate. He was dependent on the goodwill of the president and, deeply loyal, was a key player in the deployment of law enforcement personnel against the Black Lives Matter protesters last summer.
Another example of a functionary loyal to a person, rather than to the government, is Jeffrey Clark, identified last night as the relatively unknown lawyer in the Department of Justice who aspired to replace the acting attorney general by helping Trump overturn the results of the 2020 election. We have another example of such a character tonight: Pennsylvania Representative Scott Perry, who brought Clark to Trump’s attention. Perry is a conspiracy theorist who suggested that ISIS was behind the mass shooting in Las Vegas, and who joined the chorus falsely claiming the election had been fraudulent. These are not people who would be serious players in a nonpartisan, merit-based bureaucracy, but they came within a hair’s breadth of enabling Trump to overturn the election. What stopped them was bureaucrats loyal not to Trump, but to our laws.
Trump’s politicization of the government during his term is a problem for the success of the Biden administration as well as for American democracy. Trump supporters in the government remain loyal to the man himself, rather than to the country. Wisconsin Senator Ron Johnson has suggested that the Senate will not confirm Biden’s Cabinet appointments if the Democrats proceed with the Senate trial to decide whether Trump is guilty of inciting the deadly riot on the Capitol on January 6. Johnson is explicitly threatening to prevent the confirmation of “the Biden admin’s national security team” if the trial proceeds. “What will it be” he tweeted. “[R]evenge or security?”
That lawmakers tried to keep Trump in office by discrediting our electoral system was a terribly dangerous attack on our democracy. That they are threatening to leave the country vulnerable to foreign and domestic threats in order to try to stop the Senate impeachment trial–the constitutional process for evaluating the president’s role in overturning our election– is alarming.
The attempt of Trump and his supporters to overturn our democracy has created a split in the Republican Party. Strongmen demand loyalty from their followers, who give it because their leader is their only hope of advancement. But loyalty to an individual, rather than to laws, means that supporters’ jobs, finances, and possibly lives all depend on the leader’s good graces. This is no environment for legitimate businesses, whose operators certainly want laws that benefit them as a group but cannot operate in a world in which the leader can tank their stock with a tweet, or destroy their businesses on a whim.
The business wing of today’s Republican Party has preserved its power with the votes of Trump supporters but appears to be eager to get back to a system based in the law rather than on a single temperamental leader. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) is under enormous pressure from business leaders who were appalled not only by Trump’s attack on the election but also by the Republican lawmakers who objected to the count of the certified electoral votes. Those business leaders want to purge the party of the Trump faction.
But there is one more complicating factor in this volatile mix. While Biden is trying to restore the merit-based bureaucracy that stabilizes our democracy, he is also honoring the original Democratic philosophy that a truly democratic government ought to look like the people it governs. His appointments are exceedingly well qualified institutionalists… and they are also the most diverse in history.
It is reasonable to think that, along with Biden and Harris, Biden’s Cabinet and administration officers will try to change the direction of the government, defending the idea that it has a role to play regulating business, providing a basic social safety net, and promoting infrastructure. Certainly, they have promised to do so.
The trick for business Republicans will be to see whether they can get rid of the authoritarian Trump supporters without enabling Democrats to rebuild the New Deal state the Republicans have just spent decades gutting. Hence McConnell’s desperate ploy to get the Democrats to promise not to touch the filibuster, which enables the Republicans to block virtually all Democratic legislation.
Reporters for the Washington Post called it “obfuscation” when Press Secretary Jen Psaki refused to say what Biden’s position was on whether Trump should be convicted of inciting the Capitol riot. “Well, he’s no longer in the Senate, and he believes that it’s up to the Senate and Congress to determine how they will hold the former president accountable and what the mechanics and timeline of that process will be,” Psaki said.
In fact, Biden, a long-time institutionalist, seems to be trying scrupulously to restore the precise functions of different branches of government, as well as the nonpartisan civil bureaucracy that, so far, has protected our democracy from falling to a dictator.